Disaster Assistance: Additional Actions Needed to Strengthen FEMA's Individuals and Households Program

GAO-20-503 Published: Sep 30, 2020. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 2020.
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Fast Facts

The hurricanes and fires of 2017 and 2018 affected more than 47 million people in the U.S. From 2016-18, survivors received about $6 billion and 12,805 temporary housing units from FEMA's Individuals and Households Program. Most applicants were uninsured, and a majority had incomes under $50,000.

About 2.4 million people (of the 4.4 million referred to the program) were ineligible. Common reasons for denial included insufficient damage and failure to provide supporting evidence.

FEMA could better explain its program information and eligibility decisions to applicants. Improving FEMA's decision letter is one of our 14 recommendations.

Damage to a North Carolina home as a result of Hurricane Florence in 2018.

photo of a brick house with roof, deck, and tree damage

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Highlights

What GAO Found

From 2016 through 2018, 5.6 million people applied for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and 4.4 million were referred to the Individuals and Households Program (IHP) for assistance. For eligible survivors, FEMA's IHP can offer financial assistance—including money for personal property losses and repair of certain home damages. The IHP may also provide rental assistance or direct housing assistance, such as trailers, when justified by the lack of available housing resources.

Individuals and Households Program (IHP) Assistance Awarded to Almost 2 Million Survivors from 2016 through 2018

Type of Assistance

Amount of Assistance

Total Financial Assistance

$5.98 billion

Total Temporary Housing Assistance

12,805 housing units

Source: GAO analysis of IHP applicant data, as of February 24, 2020. | GAO-20-503

Of the 4.4 million referred to IHP, FEMA found almost 2 million eligible. On average, FEMA awarded about $4,200 to homeowners and $1,700 to renters during 2016 through 2018. FEMA determined roughly 1.7 million ineligible for IHP assistance, and the most common reasons for ineligibility were insufficient damage, failure to submit evidence to support disaster loses, and failure to make contact with the FEMA inspector. The remaining applicants either withdrew from IHP or received no determination due to missing insurance information. Program outcomes also varied across demographic groups, such as age and income.

GAO found that survivors faced numerous challenges obtaining aid and understanding the IHP, including the following:

  • FEMA requires that certain survivors first be denied a Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loan before receiving certain types of IHP assistance. FEMA, state, territory, and local officials said that survivors did not understand and were frustrated by this requirement. GAO found that FEMA did not fully explain the requirement to survivors and its process for the requirement may have prevented many survivors from being considered for certain types of assistance, including low-income applicants who are less likely to qualify for an SBA loan. By fully communicating the requirement and working with SBA to identify options to simplify and streamline this step of the IHP process, FEMA could help ensure that survivors receive all assistance for which they are eligible.
  • Opportunities also exist to improve survivors' understanding of FEMA's eligibility and award determinations for the IHP, for example, that an ineligible determination is not always final, but may mean FEMA needs more information to decide the award. By enhancing the clarity of its determinations and providing more information to survivors about their award, the agency could improve survivors' understanding of the IHP, better manage their expectations, build trust, and improve transparency.

Disaster Survivors Sought Assistance from the Individuals and Households Program (IHP) to Recover from Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Florida

Individuals and Households Program (IHP) Assistance Awarded to Almost 2 Million Survivors from 2016 through 2018

Further, GAO found that since 2016, FEMA faced challenges implementing the IHP through its call center and field workforce, as well as coordinating with state and local officials, as noted below:

  • Regarding workforce management, GAO found that FEMA has faced challenges managing its call center and field staff. Specific to their call center workforce—who help survivors apply for IHP and process assistance—challenges using program guidance, low morale, and inadequate training following the catastrophic 2017 hurricane season affected their work supporting disaster survivors. For example, while FEMA issues standard operating procedure updates for processing IHP applications, staff we spoke to at all four call centers noted that they could not maintain awareness of IHP guidance because of its large volume and frequent changes, which made it difficult for staff to appropriately address survivor needs. Identifying ways to improve the accessibility and usability of program guidance would help staff better assist survivors. Further, FEMA staff at disaster recovery centers (DRC) lacked some skills and capabilities needed to support survivors, such as knowledge to provide accurate guidance about required documents. By identifying and implementing strategies, such as on-the-job training, to ensure staff at its DRCs have the needed capabilities, FEMA could improve support and streamline the survivor experience.
  • Regarding coordination, GAO found that state and local officials generally had trouble understanding the IHP. For example, these officials said that FEMA did not provide sufficient training, support, and guidance that was needed in order for them to be able to effectively work with FEMA to facilitate IHP assistance. Further, local officials expressed challenges coordinating with FEMA regarding temporary housing units, such as recreational vehicles. By providing more information on the IHP to local officials, and implementing best practices for information-sharing with recovery partners, FEMA could help ensure that state and local recovery partners are better able to help survivors navigate the IHP and effectively deliver temporary housing units to survivors.

Lastly, FEMA has planned or implemented multiple efforts to improve assistance to survivors since 2017, including a redesign of the Individual Assistance Program, which includes the IHP. However, GAO found that FEMA did not complete activities that are critical to the success of a process improvement effort, according to GAO's Business Process Reengineering Assessment Guide . Specifically, the agency did not fully assess customer and stakeholder needs and performance gaps in the program, or set improvement goals and priorities for the redesign. By completing these process improvement activities, FEMA will be able to further refine the redesigned Individual Assistance Program, and more effectively direct and focus its implementation efforts.

Why GAO Did This Study

During the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons, several sequential, large-scale disasters created an unprecedented demand for federal disaster assistance. GAO was asked to review issues related to the federal response and recovery to the 2017 disaster season and, specifically, the effectiveness of the IHP.

This report addresses (1) IHP outcomes and challenges faced by survivors from 2016 through 2018; (2) challenges FEMA faced implementing the IHP during the same period; and (3) FEMA efforts to assess and improve the IHP, among other things. To answer these objectives, GAO analyzed data from all IHP applicants from 2016 through 2018 and reviewed relevant documentation and policies. GAO also interviewed FEMA, state, territory, local, and nonprofit officials; met with survivors; and visited locations affected by hurricanes in 2017 and 2018 selected to include multiple FEMA regions and other characteristics.

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Recommendations

GAO is making 14 recommendations, and DHS concurred.

To address challenges faced by survivors, GAO recommends improving the communication of the SBA loan requirement, identifying ways to simplify the application process, improve the IHP award determination letters, and provide more information to survivors about their award.

To address challenges FEMA faced implementing the IHP, GAO recommends improving the communication of guidance changes, ensure employee engagement to raise morale, and improve training among call center staff. GAO also recommends strategies to ensure DRC staff have the skills to support survivors. GAO also recommends improving IHP information provided to state, local, tribal, and territorial recovery partners; and identifying and implementing best practices for information sharing and coordination on the delivery of temporary transportable housing.

To further FEMA efforts to assess and improve the IHP, GAO recommends corrections to the methodology used to survey survivors; following key process improvement activities—including engaging stakeholders, assessing performance gaps, and prioritization of process improvement—during program redesign activities; and establishing time frames for strategic planning and implementation of program improvement efforts.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should improve the completeness and consistency of its communication of the requirement to apply for an SBA disaster loan prior to being considered for SBA-dependent other needs assistance. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In April 2022, FEMA officials provided an update stating that FEMA completed its focus groups discussions with disasters survivor to obtain feedback on the revised letters. However, FEMA has not provided an update on the IHP brochure regarding information on SBA requirements. FEMA also stated that as part of its review of the determination letters to applicants, it will include more detailed information on the SBA-dependent information to be completed by June 2022. The recommendation will remain open until actions are taken by FEMA to include the SBA requirements in the IHP brochure and complete the review and revision of the letters to applicants.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should assess the extent to which its process for determining an applicant's eligibility for SBA-dependent other needs assistance limits or prevents survivors' access to IHP assistance, and work with SBA to identify options to simplify and streamline the disaster assistance application process for survivors. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In April 2022, FEMA officials provided an update stating that FEMA is in the process of developing a notice of proposed rulemaking related to the SBA-dependent other needs assistance and plans to publish the notice of the proposed rulemaking by November 2022.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should improve the IHP award determination letters by using federal guidance and best practices for communicating with the public to ensure that applicants understand that an "ineligible" determination does not mean they cannot continue to pursue assistance. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In April 2022, FEMA officials provided an update stating that as part of the letter review process, FEMA completed its focus groups discussions with disasters survivor to obtain feedback on the revised letters and plans to use their feedback in validating revisions made to the letters by June 2022. The recommendation will remain open until completion of the review process and any revisions as result of the review process are implemented.
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The FEMA Administrator should identify and implement strategies to provide additional information to applicants about how FEMA determined their eligibility for assistance and the amount of assistance to award. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In April 2022, FEMA officials provided an update stating that FEMA is continuing to conduct its review of the letters and plans to implement any revisions by June 2022.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should evaluate the method for communicating changes in IHP standard operating procedures (SOP) to identify ways to improve their accessibility and usability by National Processing Service Center (NPSC) staff. (Recommendation 5)
Closed - Implemented
In October 2021, FEMA officials provided a copy of the 2020 Implementation Plan titled "Implementation Plan: Processing Procedures Manual Improvement Project" supporting FEMA's actions of completing the internal processing procedures manual website search-ability improvements and the user interface for eventual use by staff. As a result of the Implementation Plan, GAO is considering the recommendation closed and implemented. FEMA has satisfied the purposed intent of the recommendation by taken actions to identify ways to improve the accessibility and usability by National Processing Service Center staff.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should use desirable characteristics of employee engagement—including performance feedback, career development, communication, and attention to work-life balance—while completing planned activities for improving morale among call center staff. (Recommendation 6)
Open
In April 2022, FEMA officials stated that the Individual Assistance Applicant Services Section (APS) Leadership Academy will provide quarterly trainings for new supervisors beginning by May 2022. Also, FEMA officials stated that all supervisors are anticipated to be trained by April 2023, after which the academy training will be conducted annually to newly hired supervisors.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should use desirable characteristics of employee engagement—including performance feedback, career development, communication, and attention to work-life balance—when assessing NPSC staff satisfaction scores and identifying additional steps to strengthen employee morale. (Recommendation 7)
Closed - Implemented
In April 2022, FEMA officials provided an update stating that FEMA's Applicant Processing Services (APS) finalized its efforts to report on the feedback from the year-end employee viewpoint survey and provided a copy of the report titled "APS Employee Program [EEP] Success: 2021." FEMA actions to assess National Processing Service Center staff satisfaction scores and identify additional steps to strengthen employee morale via its APS report demonstrate their efforts on NPSC employee engagement. As a result, GAO is considering the recommendation closed and implemented.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should assess the effectiveness of the IHP training and support for NPSC staff during surge events and implement any necessary changes. (Recommendation 8)
Open
In August 2021, FEMA officials provide an update stating that its post assessment classes for surge events were completed at the end of March 2021, and quarterly review of the post training surveys' results will be completed by March 2022.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should identify and implement strategies to help ensure staff deployed to Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC) have the needed skills and capabilities to provide support and consistent service to survivors. (Recommendation 9)
Open
In April 2022, FEMA officials provided an update stating that FEMA completed drafting the DRC Manager and Housing Crew Lead training courses and will finalize the training courses by May 2022.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should identify and implement strategies to provide readily accessible information and resources, such as guidance and training, about the Individuals and Households Program to state, local, tribal, and territorial officials. (Recommendation 10)
Open
In October 2021, FEMA officials provided an update stating that FEMA has made the Individual Assistance Program and Policy Guide available on FEMA's website for state, local, tribal, and territorial officials. However, the recommendation will remain open until additional actions are taken by FEMA documenting their training and communication/outreach strategy to states, local, tribal and territorial officials.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should identify and implement best practices for information sharing and coordinating with local officials, and other recovery partners, on the delivery of Transportable Temporary Housing Units in the interim while FEMA completes system improvements. (Recommendation 11)
Closed - Implemented
In October 2021, FEMA officials provided a copy of the revised Direct Housing Guide incorporating information on best practices for information sharing and coordinating with local officials and other recovery partners. As a result of the information in the Direct Housing Guide, GAO considers the recommendation closed and implemented. FEMA has satisfied the purposed intent of the recommendation by taken actions to identify and implement best practices while it completes system improvements.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should correct and refine the methodology used to survey survivor experiences with the IHP by (1) weighting the survey data to reflect the stratification of its survey design, (2) adjusting the base sampling weights for survey nonresponse within each stratum, and (3) calculating the sampling error for the survey data after adjusting the base sampling weights for nonresponse. (Recommendation 12)
Open
In April 2022, FEMA officials stated that FEMA will apply the survey weights including based sampling weights and nonresponse adjustments by October 2022 and provide a report with weighted responses and standard errors by November 2022.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should complete the following key process improvement activities as part of its effort to redesign the Individual Assistance Program: (1) engage with additional program customers and stakeholders to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of their needs; (2) assess performance gaps between current processes and customer and stakeholder needs, and develop measurable and achievable improvement goals to address any identified performance gaps; and (3) prioritize the processes that need improvement based on documented selection criteria. (Recommendation 13)
Closed - Implemented
In April 2022, FEMA officials provided an update stating that FEMA has taken steps to (1) engage with program customers and stakeholders; (2) set improvement goals and identified the strategies taken to meet each of the goals; and (3) provided data demonstrating the results of the strategies in meeting the improvement goals. As a result GAO considers the recommendation closed and implemented.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should establish time frames for finalizing the Individual Assistance Division's draft strategic plan and developing implementation plans that integrate its IHP improvement efforts. (Recommendation 14)
Closed - Implemented
In October 2021, FEMA officials provided a copy of the IA Strategic Plan 2020-2024 and the Individual Assistance Division 2021 Priorities. In April 2022, FEMA provided additional details on their time frames and implementation plans for the sub-objectives of their IA Strategic Plan. As a result, GAO considers the recommendation closed and implemented.

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